let's visit

Let’s Visit: Animal Welfare

One of the things nearest and dearest to my heart–and the heart of every single rancher and farmer that I know–is animal welfare. I’ve seen countless terrible comments, memes, articles, you name it, about the welfare of America’s cattle.

This fire first started when I was a college student. It was the my last semester of school, and I had been spending a lot of time on the ranch and visiting with ranchers and industry professionals while working on my thesis. My major was in Environmental Studies, though with an emphasis in International Policy & Development, and all Environmental Studies majors at the time were required to take Environmental Ethics. Because philosophy is one of my least favorite subjects (so abstract), I left that class until the last minute. I was pretty surprised, though, with what the curriculum ended up including. Yes, we read Peter Singer and books like Omnivore’s Dilemma and Into the Wild. But, we also watched documentaries (a whole other topic!) like Food, Inc., and Earthlings, and the professor was vehemently vegetarian and anti-meat.

I have no problem at all–AT ALL–with vegetarians, vegans, or others who choose not to eat all or certain kinds of meat. None! Some of my very nearest and dearest friends and extended family members do not eat meat. I do have a problem with people who foist their views of any kind onto impressionable students (at a public university, mind you, albeit one known for it’s “hippie” leanings) using sensational media and horrific personal anecdotes instead of facts.

There was one documentary we watched that showed an older steer with big ole horns caught in a chute, and someone de-horning him with something like a monkey wrench. Our professor said “This is something that happens to cattle in this country every day.” Guys, I lost it. Because it’s not. It really, really isn’t, and it was wildly unfair for the professor to say that it was, just like it would be wildly unfair for me to make such an incorrect and awful claim about an industry that I know nothing about, like medecine or makeup, or underwater basket weaving. Presenting that and similar footage as normal, routine, “the way things are” is so damaging. It’s obviously damaging to our industry since that kind of behavior is unacceptable and not tolerated by the vast majority of us. It’s damaging to you, the consumer, because it makes it hard for you to understand the truth, and probably really freaks you out. It’s damaging to society as a whole because we deserve better reporting and easier access to facts to help us make the very best decisions we can.

That is not “the way things are.”

In any industry, the beef industry included, there are bad people, lazy people, who cut corners, do harm, and behave poorly. But saying we all do is like saying every company is Enron. It’s just not true.

The reality is that every day, we check on our animals. Every. Day. Birthdays, Christmas, weekends, rain or shine, well or sick, every day. Sometimes this means getting in a truck and driving out to the pasture and checking on the girls en route to check waters. Sometimes this means saddling a horse and trotting out at sunrise. Sometimes this means jumping in the tractor with a bale of hay to feed and check cattle at the same time. Sometimes this means checking in the truck “real quick” and then calling your wife to bring the horses up and catch one because you found a sick animal that needs doctored immediately.

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All the ranchers and farmers I know have a similar battery of stories: staying out all night to try and keep calves alive in a blizzard. Bundling children into pickups late at night because a car ran through the fence on the county road and both mom and dad need to be there to put the cows away and fix the fence by the light of the headlights. Grown men, tough as nails, coming home defeated with tears in their eyes because there was a calf they tried so hard to save but couldn’t. These same grown men having favorite cattle that will eat cake cubes out of their hands in the pasture. These same men taking hours to dig a hole and bury an old, beloved horse or dog who died knowing he was so loved. Feeding and doctoring cattle in all weathers. Hauling water for hours every day in a drought. Cutting fences and desperately trying to save cattle in a wildfire. It goes on and on, and this is not exceptional. This is normal. This is our every day. I’m not saying this to make us sound like heroes or exceptional people. This is what is means to be a rancher, a farmer, a steward.

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Our job as the stewards of these lands and these cattle is to make sure everything is as healthy as possible, from the grass the cows eat, to the water they drink, to the dogs we use to help us move them, and to the cattle themselves. When an animal is sick, we treat it. If an animal has been treated and cannot be saved or has had a terrible accident, we humanely euthanize it so that it does not suffer. That is our job.

Want to know what I’ve heard a lot? That this is all well and good for me to say, since I live on a ranch and ranches aren’t the problem, right? It’s the feedlots and the slaughterhouses that are the real issue here.

Nope, nope, nope.

Listen, I feel you. I feel you on so many levels. Seeing cattle in feedlots can be tough. It’s not pretty, it’s a little stinky, and the scale can shock you. Seeing animals slaughtered and rendered in a packing plant is also a little shocking, and can be overwhelming.

But, I’ve visited both of those places, and have friends who live and work in feedlots or who are employees and supervisors in packing plants. And if you have doubts, I urge you to get in touch with a real, live person who can visit with you (I can help!) or, if you drive by a feedlot or have an opportunity to visit a packing plant, look closely.

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Because when you look closely in a feedlot, you’ll see happy cattle, eating and running and playing (yes, playing) with plenty of room. You’ll see pen riders on horseback checking cattle, working with the on-staff vet to treat sick ones, and working with their horses to help them learn, too. You’ll see experts and workers of all kinds making sure the cattle ration is correct for each pen, that all the fences, bunks, and waterers are in good working order, and the cattle have everything they need. If you want to read more about caring for cattle in a feedlot, I highly, highly recommend the Feedyard Foodie blog. Anne is a mother, a boss, sharp as a tack, and does a wonderful job showing that part of the beef industry.

When you look closely in a slaughterhouse, you’ll see a lot of efficiency and movement, yes. But you’ll also see people handling the cattle quietly and killing them with dignity and without pain. You’ll see state-of-the-art facilities designed by world-renowned Dr. Temple Grandin, who has incredible insight into how cattle work and how we can make them the most comfortable and calm. You’ll see each part of each animal used for a purpose so that nothing is wasted. Slaughterhouses have many, many stringent rules and regulations they must follow, and have been practically transformed in the last few decades by the work of Dr. Grandin. I highly recommend reading this if you’re wanting to learn more about the slaughter process–don’t worry, there are no graphic images.

If you have questions or concerns about the welfare of our cattle, speak up! Comment here or email me. I’ve also mentioned certain certifications you can look for if you would like to purchase meat that has been verified by an animal welfare organization.

 

 

 

 

 

let's visit

Upcycling: Bovine Edition

Last week, in our Wednesday “Let’s Visit” series, we talked about what kind of beef options are available for you to eat, based upon certain criteria you may have. This week we’re going to visit about what cows eat.

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I mean, cows eat grass, right? Totally. But cows also eat lots of other things. Pastures are not like your lawn (unless your lawn is like my lawn, which is literally just a fenced-off, irrigated chunk of pasture). They are filled with grass, yes, but also with other plants like legumes, weeds, flowers, and brush. On pasture, cows will eat seemingly strange things, like beans from mesquite trees, willow bushes, flowers, and even thistle. Bert claims he saw a cow eat a rock once, so there’s that. Cattle can also graze on corn and wheat pastures after the crops have been harvested, too. Cattle really are talented upcyclers–they take things that we consider “junk” or that we can’t eat, and convert it to things that we can. This is handy since 85% of the land that cattle graze in the United States is not suitable for human food production.

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But, a cow’s affinity for upcycling doesn’t stop in the pasture. We talk a lot about “grain-finished” beef, which can paint the picture that cattle in feedlots are fed grain of the “amber waves” variety that you’d imagine could be used to make bread and cereal and such for human consumption. In reality, 86% (over 90% in the United States) of the total food that cows eat is not edible by humans. Some of this is the “1.9 billion metric tons of leftovers from human food, fiber, and biofuel production” like wheat stalks, cottonseed, and distillers grains that would otherwise potentially become an environmental burden. They can also eat cast-offs and extras of human foods that might be thrown away and wasted like dropped pickles and rejected skittles.

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And, beef is an important part of the global diet. I’m not just saying that because I’m a rancher, the FAO is saying that, too. Livestock in general and cows specifically have an integral place in the global food system, and it’s not as a “stealer” of human food.

The very best part is that we’re getting better. We’re learning how to do more with less, how to use genetics and science to help us make our herds and feed more efficient, and how to lessen our impact on the environment every step of the way. I really recommend checking out the articles I’ve linked to here (FAO, Upcyclers) because they both talk about brand-new research about beef and its impact on global food security.

Basically, we need to give cows more credit, because if they were on Iron Chef and you were like “Uhhhhhhhh that’s not food,” they’d be like “Au contraire, mon frère,” even if y’all aren’t brothers, or French, and then they’d proceed to make a masterpiece out of skittles and wheat midds and you’d be sunk.

Until Friday, kids, unless of course my computer actually kicks it.  I thought it was dead, but turns out the old dinosaur just needed an extended break, which is happy mistake on my part. 2018 will likely be the Year of the New Laptop, however, because this old girl is on her last legs.

(Open to recommendations! I need something not too expensive that will do Word, Excel, and photo editing that isn’t a beast to carry around.)

Anyways.

We’ll get down on Friday.

let's visit

There’s A Beef For That

Last week, I talked about some common misconceptions I hear all the time regarding beef and beef production. This week, we’re going to visit about something that gets equal time in the social media sphere: what kind of beef you should be eating.

I’m not going to tell you what kind of beef you should eat, or what kind of beef you shouldn’t eat. I will tell you, though that the standards for beef quality and safety in the United States are very high, so no matter what you’re getting a top-notch product.

However, if you’re wanting something specific, I can help you with how to find beef that suits what you’re looking for. This is not an exhaustive list, but includes some of the more mainstream, easy-to-find certifications. Remember those “There’s an app for that!” commercials? Well, there’s a beef for that!

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If you’re looking for beef that was never given antibiotics, look for:
USDA Certified Organic
— “Raised/Grown Without Antibiotics” “No Antibiotics Administered” or similar, look for USDA seal
—  
Never Ever 3
Global Animal Partnership
American Grassfed Association
Things to remember: “Antibiotic-Free” has no legal meaning with the USDA. “Natural” doesn’t mean anything other than “minimally-processed” with no added colors or artificial ingredients–this is true of all fresh meat. “No Antibiotic Residues” means that the meat has no residues, but no meat does, so again, meaningless. Also, please remember what I wrote last week: no matter what, the meat you eat has been tested for antibiotic residues. You are not eating antibiotics even if these labels are not on the meat that you purchased. When animals are sick, treating them is the right thing to do.

If you’re looking no growth hormones:
USDA Certified Organic
NHTC
Never Ever 3
Global Animal Partnership
Animal Welfare Approved
American Humane Certified
American Grassfed Association
— “No Hormones Administered” plus a USDA seal
Things to remember: “Hormone-Free” is not a thing, since all meat has hormones in it.

If you’re looking for beef from cattle that were fed no animal byproducts:
USDA Certified Organic
Never Ever 3
Global Animal Partnership
Animal Welfare Approved
Certified Humane
American Humane Certified (specifies “no ruminant-derived protein sources with the exception of milk and milk products)
American Grassfed Association

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If you’re looking for a certification for humane treatment or animal welfare:
Global Animal Partnership
Animal Welfare Approved
Certified Humane
American Humane Certified
Things to remember: I say “a certification for humane treatment” because humane treatment truly is the standard in the United States. Some producers pay to have a third-party verification service come in to review and verify their claims or their participation in animal welfare programs. I would encourage you to look into these individually, as their standards vary quite a bit since this category is subjective. Don’t worry, I plan on doing a whole post about this one. Also, a claim of “Humanely Raised and Handled,” even with a USDA seal, doesn’t mean much, since companies make their own standards.

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If you’re looking for beef that comes from cows that were only fed grass:
American Grassfed Association (no confinement)
–the USDA also offers a grassfed certification, but their standards do not address confinement, hormones, or antibiotics.
Food Alliance grass-fed program
Things to remember: uncertified “grass-fed” labels can mean that the animal did, in fact, eat only grass for most of its life (like all cattle)–but could have been finished on grain. Also, read up on the organization doing the certifying and their standards since they all have differences regarding antibiotics, hormones, confinement, etc. You might also find a lot of grass-fed beef from Australia, since grassfed is the status quo there. If country of origin is important to you, take this into account.

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If you’re looking for beef that comes from cows that were always on pasture:
Global Animal Partnership Step 5-5+
American Grassfed Association
Animal Welfare Approved
Things to remember: just having “pasture-raised” isn’t enough if you’re wanting no confinement at all, since all beef is raised on pasture (but could be finished elsewhere).

If you’re looking for American-raised beef:
American Grassfed Association requires all of its beef to come from family-owned American farms.
— Farmer’s Markets or meat co-ops. Lots of ranches and farms will sell meat to you by the quarter, half, or whole animal and it will be processed locally. If you need help finding someone near you, poke around on Google or Facebook, contact your local cattleman’s association, or shoot me an email!
Things to remember: because the country-of-origin labeling for beef is no longer required, you might feel uncertain. But, more than 90% of the beef consumed in the US was produced by American farms and ranches.

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Some retailers, like Whole Foods, have their own standards, so feel free to ask your retailer about their store’s requirements for the beef they sell. There are also now meat subscription boxes, like Butcher Box, that curate their meat based upon certain standards.

I get asked a lot what kind of beef we eat. Because we’re ranchers, we eat beef that we raise. We have two deep-freezers that we fill with meat every year, and have gotten half a pig the last couple of years too. Some of the animals we’ve eaten have been conventionally-raised and given antibiotics. Some have been mostly grass-fed. Last year we ate a bull that got culled later on because his scrotum was too small. Last year’s pig wasn’t big enough to show, so they sent it to be processed. We’ve had pretty much every variety on this list!

And lastly: I’m so into you meeting your farmer. This doesn’t mean I think you should only eat locally-raised meat because, like I said, I’m not here to tell you what you should eat. But, go visit a farm or ranch! Actually, visit both. Talk to the people who do this for their life’s work. Ask them your questions, visit awhile. See how your food is grown and cared for. It will give you more tools to decide what criteria is important to you. Like I said last week, if you’re needing help finding a ranch to visit, holler!

let's visit

Myth vs. Fact: FAQ Edition

Every Wednesday, I’d like to visit with you about beef. This week’s post is a general myth vs. fact sort of affair, addressing things either I or Bert hear often, or see on social media regularly. I won’t lie to you and say that some of these don’t really grind my gears, because they do. But it’s no use fussing about it, let’s get right to it.

Calves are born in feedlots where they live on corn until we eat them. All calves are born on ranches and farms. I’m not exaggerating–calving cows in confinement doesn’t work very well, so we tend not to do it. Calves stay with their mothers, on pasture, drinking milk and eating grass, until they are weaned at 6-8 months of age, then typically go to a stocker or a backgrounder and then on to a feedlot. Cattle spend 4-6 months in a feedlot, where they have plenty of room and top-notch care, and are fed a ration of various types of food, including hay. They don’t eat just straight corn!

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Ranching takes land away from farming. Honestly, this one kind of kills me. 85% of land used for raising beef cattle is not suitable for farming. I’ve often heard that we should get rid of cow herds and farm the rangelands to support a global plant-based diet. While maybe it’s a nice idea in theory, it doesn’t work in reality because you literally can’t farm most of the places where cows graze. The soil isn’t good for growing crops like the Sandhills of Nebraska which are, you guessed it, very sandy hills; or the ground isn’t suitable for being farmed like mountains of the American West, or the swamps and everglades and bayous of southern coastal states, or the deserts of the southwestern part of the country. We’ve lived in places where the growing season is too short to support farming (North Park, Colorado), or where the soil is too poor and the climate too dry to support anything but native short grass (Capitan, New Mexico), or where it’s too rocky and steep for anything but non-native grasses to thrive (Cameron, Montana). The really neat thing about cattle is that they’re taking a resource that humans can’t use for food–grass–and making it in to something that we can.

Grass-finished beef is better for the environment and grass-finished cattle are better cared-for. The science says no. I’ve heard both ends on this one, but I’ll ask you to consider this: grass-finished cattle can take twice as long to reach a (lower) slaughter weight than conventionally-raised cattle. That’s a whole year longer to consume resources like grass and water, and produce waste. More space, more time, more resources, for less beef. In fact, if we consumed the same amount of beef but it was all grass-finished, we’d need over 60 million more animals, 131 million more acres of rangeland, and would produce 135 million tons more greenhouse gases. Article here! Also, grass-finished beef can still spend time in a feedlot eating a diet of grass, forage, hay, or silage, and can still be given antibiotics or hormones. They aren’t cared for any better or worse than any other cattle, either! We do our best to take care of all of our cattle, regardless of how they are finished or marketed. Someone might tell you that I’m just shining you on, but spend some time with any rancher (I can find you one near where you live!), or on this blog, or come on down and visit me, and you’ll see that we really do our best by every cow we raise.

Grass-finished beef is better for you. I see this often cited with Omega-3s in mind. It’s true that grass-finished beef has double the amount of Omega-3s than grain-finished beef but it’s still not a good source. A serving (3.5 oz) of grass-finished beef has about 80 mg of those good ole fatty acids, whereas the same size serving of salmon will have 1,000-2,000 mg. Another thing to note is that salmon contains the “better” fatty acids EPA and DHA, while beef contains mostly AHA.

Beef is a huge cause of global warming. There’s a lot of controversy about this since there are many different studies with many different approaches. I use the EPA’s numbers, which say that beef production accounts for 3.4% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Full stop. Things like transportation and wasting food (we waste 40% of our food in this country, guys!) have a much larger impact. Also, properly grazed rangeland environments can actually act as carbon sinks, so that’s pretty cool. Another thing that’s pretty cool? We keep getting better. We keep decreasing our impact and increasing our efficiency year after year.

Beef is bad for you. Again, nope. Beef is a great source of protein, especially for the calories, and provides nine vital vitamins and minerals. I’m not saying to go out and stuff your face with a 20 oz steak, because moderation in everything is key, but don’t feel like you’re killing yourself by eating beef, either. You’re fueling your body with some good stuff!

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All conventional meat has antibiotics in it. Even if an animal was treated with antibiotics, you aren’t “eating” those antibiotics when you consume that meat. All antibiotics have withdrawal periods before an animal can be slaughtered to prevent residues from ending up in meat. USDA inspectors then test the carcasses at the packing plants to ensure that residual guidelines are strictly followed. There’s literally a National Residue Program for this, and programs for continuing producer education like Beef Quality Assurance. There’s also a publicly available list of producers who have more than one residue violation. It’s updated weekly, and the USDA will use it to take extra care to inspect meat from those producers. Cattle buyers also use it to know if any of their suppliers have residue problems so they can be extra vigilant or choose not to work with that supplier. It’s a big deal, y’all, and we take it very seriously.

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All cattle in feedlots or not in an antibiotic-free program are given antibiotics. While sick animals or at-risk animals that need antibiotics will be doctored and cared for by an experienced professional–most feedlots have at least one veterinarian on staff–this doesn’t mean that all animals not in an “antibiotic-free” program are given antibiotics. From the ranch to the feedlot, beef producers are careful to use antibiotics only when they are needed for many reasons, but especially because it’s the right thing to do, but also antibiotics are expensive and take valuable time to administer so producers have no incentive to use them otherwise. That antibiotic pictured above, albeit one of the more expensive ones, costs nearly $5 a mL, and the dosage is 1.1mL/100 lbs. So, that $1200 bottle might treat about 35 weaned calves, or 25 yearlings. For a business with small profit margins–especially on the ranching side–that’s nothing to shake a stick at. It’s not like when you or your child is sick, and you go to the doctor and maybe only have to pay a copay, if anything. The producer is bearing the full weight of the cost of that drug, so you bet your hiney they’ll be using it judiciously. Lest you think that money is the only thing that matters in beef production: nope. The main thing here is that if an animal is sick, we are going to try and get it better. That might mean repeated treatment, or even a costly vet visit. We are not, however, going to throw away money by treating animals that don’t need it. Balance.

We’ll leave it there for now. I know it’s hard to navigate food. It’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not thanks to junk all over social media and regular media (hey Netflix, get you some better documentaries), and it’s hard not to worry because it’s food. It quite literally gives you life. You want the best for your family and for yourself. Oddly enough, so do we. On these Wednesday posts, I hope we can walk a little bit together and that I can help you know a little more truth about some of your food!

Up next week: beef choices, and how to find beef that fits what you’re looking for.